Video as a key player in the Microsoft decision making process: An interview with Microsoft Director Will Robbins

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I had been introduced to Microsoft director Will Robbins by my friend Charlie Bartlett, who had worked on the award winning Microsoft: Productivity Future Vision video as a compositor.

Used with permission from Microsoft.

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I met with Will (view Will’s incredible IMDB page here) on an overcast Seattle Friday, at the Microsoft campus in Microsoft Studios Building C. We spent an hour in the atrium, talking about diets, dark chocolate, being outdoors, and, of course, UI animation and the role of video in the design process.

Issara: One of the things that struck me in re-watching the 2015 Productivity Future Vision video is that you guys designed real working interaction models, not Hollywood movie screens.

Will: Oh, yes. Completely.

Used with permission from Microsoft.

Issara: All the tasks and screens actually make sense in the context of what is happening in the narrative.

Will: That is the brilliance of having plenty of time to develop an interaction model, and working with great UI designers. We had 90 days to come up with an interaction model before we started shooting.

I’ve only experienced that once before — when we had six months to develop the UI interaction model. We had an entire book written on the UI. That was ‘Minority Report’.

Issara: Wow!

Will: Minority Report is the only movie I’ve been on where the UI is one of the main characters. The UI had been thought out. The UI had been choreographed. The UI had a manual with a ‘gesture-speak’ book that Tom (Cruise) and Steve (Spielberg) referred to.

I got the book from John Underkoffler, the MIT professor who wrote the manual on gesture-speak before we even got the set.

Issara: If you had to articulate the value of the Microsoft Productivity Future Vision video, what would you say is the desired outcome and how do you measure that? Is it YouTube views or is it moving the conversation forward so these projects get developed?

Used with permission from Microsoft.

Will: What we do initially is outline the audience. We look at this in two ways.

We ask ourselves, “How are we going to influence and excite the engineering teams and the internal design teams to go out and do greater products.”

And we ask ourselves, “How do we get the consumers excited by new ideas and things we’re thinking about, five or even ten years out?”

The Productivity Future Vision video was more focused on externally getting people excited about where we’re looking at, and the kind of things that we’re thinking about.

At the same time, a small percentage of the video was geared towards the internal teams already working on the ideas that are represented in the video.

All the UI you see in the video is currently being talked about, worked on, or discussed in some form or factor at Microsoft.

Used with permission from Microsoft.

Issara: Video is a unique communication tool, in that it can be a bridge between the designers and whomever else, be it the consumers or other designers. Video is a much more powerful and effective tool than a deck or PowerPoint presentation.

Will: Absolutely.

Issara: Video creates context. Our mirror neurons fire and tell our brain that we’re doing those things that this person over there is doing. Watching someone do something gives us the ability to understand.

Even with a really quick 3-second shot in the productivity video, as a viewer, you get something that may take 20 minutes to explain with a deck or other presentation.

Will: And you’ve lost the audience three minutes in.

Issara: There’s something inside of it that that goes beyond entertainment, beyond cool and exciting. I believe there’s this mechanism of communication and efficiency that allows people to grasp an idea with velocity.

Will: When I first got to Microsoft six years ago, video was an unusual deliverable to produce internally.

Today at Microsoft, video is not only used for exciting engineers and designers but also the executive leadership in making decisions and even higher up.

Issara: The stakeholders.

Will: Yes, video has become a tool for stakeholders and decision making. Video is now a key pillar in that decision making process. Six years ago, it wasn’t. Most teams and PMs now go in armed with a video, a PowerPoint, and a prototype.

Issara: Wow!

Will: It’s usually those three. I would say it’s growing even more. Video has now become one of the three key pillars that people use when they present a new product. It’s also used to get engineers excited as well as help the leadership influence desired outcomes.

Used with permission from Microsoft.

Issara: Can you walk me through the video creation process?

Will: We started a year before, in 2014. Anton Oguzhan Andrews, the director of the team, Dave Jones and Harald Becker went to almost every team within Microsoft that was working on some form of productivity, or office based, or working environment that would influence the future of work.

The predictions are that more and more people will be working offsite, and more and more people will be working at home. The largest percentage of employees will be vendors. Up to 60% in the future, they’re saying.

They looked at the influence of globalization, and how people are dealing with multinational languages, money, and transactions.

Then they went to Microsoft Research and they said, “Hey, what do you guys working on? What kind of things are you looking at?”

They also had quite a bit of user research with companies around the world that study the future of productivity.

I’d say we probably had six to nine months of pre-work.

Issara:I had no idea. I don’t think anybody does when they watch the video. That’s cool!

Will: They take it very seriously. Those guys are great and they put their heart and soul into it. They don’t want to put out anything too blue sky.

Chris Edwards, Tom Ham and Alanna MacGowan outlined the original UI model and overall design. I focused on the production, the direction, and the logistics in getting it all done while they would map the UI to specific touch points.

To give a prime example, when Lola walks into her office where she brings up her UI on a glass screen, Chris brilliantly had Kat (the actress) use different colored dots with numbers on them so she would know in what order to hit them.

Issara: That’s what I do for my shoots. I use what I call ‘talent guides.’

Will: Yes, exactly.

Issara: I design the graphics and load load them up on my device and use tracking marks on the phone so we have the reflections baked in. I actually created some tutorials around this technique.

Will: That’s perfect. That’s exactly what we did.

Issara: Is there anything that you want to leave people with? Or that you’re excited about? Or wants to share that any advice for people that are currently at school or looking to getting into this game?

Will: Yes, I’m not going to say ‘do what I did,’ but don’t be afraid to jump in. You really don’t need anybody else teaching you. Just get in there and learn. It’s exactly what I did.

Used with permission from Microsoft.
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